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Reports Jun 15, 2020 | 7:37 AMby Colin McGourty

Carlsen wins Clutch Chess in absolute thriller

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen won the final game on demand to beat Fabiano Caruana and pick up a total of $75,000 after a spectacular final day of the Clutch Chess International. Magnus struck first but the single draw in the next game came in the middle of a sequence of nine decisive games in a row. Fabiano notched up an amazing four comebacks in total but it was Magnus who won the most clutch game of all and got to employ the “shush” celebration that had once backfired so badly against the same opponent.

You can replay all the games from Clutch Chess International using the selector below:

And here’s the live commentary on the final day from Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley:

The idea of “clutch” chess was inspired by basketball, and Magnus Carlsen compared the final match to that sport:

In terms of basketball I guess we were scoring on every possession, because we started out with two draws and the next nine out of ten were decisive and there were no consecutive wins in the whole match, which is just pretty sick! It was really like both teams scoring on every possession. I felt like yesterday I was playing better and I was unlucky not to come out on top, but today I feel like it really could have gone either way. I won the first game, which was ok, but the next four, to be honest, I think he played a lot better than I did, but fortunately I took the one chance that I had in the final game and yeah, it feels pretty sweet!

The day started with Magnus demonstrating a new approach with the black pieces. He’d lost the last two games in the 3.Bb5 Sicilian and this time instead of playing 3…e6 went for 3…e5 and then 4…Bd6!?

Once again it was an opening system he’d stick to throughout the day, and it paid off immediately when Fabiano’s careless 25.Rae1? was hit by 25…e4!

The black knight gained the e5-square, from which it went to d3 and could have taken on f2 or, as in the game, on e1. It was essentially game over, though the way Fabiano made his opponent work to the very end suggested he was up for a fight.

Fabiano later confirmed that himself:

I was in general feeling optimistic during the match, so I didn’t take the losses too hard and it probably helped me come back. Pretty much after every game I lost I won the next one, so yeah, I guess I was in a good mindset.

The comeback was almost immediate, with 30.Rca2? by Magnus walking into a trick:

30…Rxa2 31.Rxa2 Nxe5 32.dxe5 d4!, hitting both the queen and the undefended rook on a2.

Magnus had to allow the black pawn to d3, but on this one occasion he managed to hold on for a draw.

You might think that would have been a heavy blow for Fabiano, but in fact it only delayed his comeback by a single game. Against Carlsen’s same 4…Bd6 Sicilian Fabi this time dominated almost from start to finish, with just one fleeting chance for Magnus to more or less equalise:

23…f5! is playable due to the trick 24.Nxf5 Nxc4!, but in the game after 23…e4? 24.b3! Black was in desperate trouble, with the a5-knight a particularly miserable piece. Magnus soon gave up an exchange to try and set up a fortress, but ultimately Fabiano broke through and had levelled the match again.

The final “normal” game got off to a bizarre start as Fabiano seemed to get confused when a slightly different dance of the knights led to the same position as in Game 6 of their London World Championship match. Back then Caruana correctly played 9…Nd4, but this time he spent a minute on the “novelty” 9…c6?, which in this case the commentators felt was a euphemism for “blunder”:

Magnus could have won a full exchange with 10.Nc7!, but, whether fearing preparation or making a miscalculation, he went for 10.Bxe2 instead. White was still doing well at first, but Fabiano had at least equalised before he went on to lose the endgame. He later commented:

I think we had very good moments and we usually won those games, and then we had very bad moments and the mistakes were unfortunately kind of costly, especially losing the game before the clutch games, the 10th game. That was also very unnecessary, because I’d gotten over the worst of it and then I played carelessly once it became equal, or I think I might have been slightly better at some point in that game. I was a bit careless at some moments near the end of the match and it cost me.

That meant it was advantage Magnus going into the clutch games and two draws would seal the deal, but, as we’ve seen, it was no day for draws! Once again Carlsen’s pet Sicilian line let him down, with Fabiano winning a pawn quickly and on move 33 finding a move that our silicon friends had been advocating for the last six moves:

There was no way back for Magnus, though at least he felt the time it took for Fabiano to finish him off was an opportunity to come to terms with the situation:

To be fair I was fairly calm. I knew I would have one more chance and the way Game 11 had gone I’d been sort of reconciled with the fact that I was probably going to lose that game for a while, so I really at that point just relished the challenge.    

The challenge was that the 3-point clutch game win for Fabiano was not merely his 4th comeback of the match but actually put him in the lead for the first time. Magnus now had to win on demand and, in what proved to be an inspired choice, he returned to the 6.f3!? idea he’d played in the first game of the match:

Back then 6…Re8 had been met by 7.Kf2!?, but this time Fabiano blitzed out 6…b5. Magnus didn’t blink as he responded 7.d4!, with Caruana later lamenting:

I didn’t believe I would lose the last game, but something just went very wrong. To be honest, I didn’t expect him to repeat this, so after the first day I kind of just saw that b5 is supposed to be a decent move and I thought I’d take it from there, which was probably a bit too casual, because I obviously misplayed it, and it wasn’t a very good final game.

The moment it became clear this might be Carlsen’s day was when he got to play 16.e6!

It was just what Magnus needed:

Obviously I knew that it would be very, very hard, but at the same time neither of us were able to defend difficult positions, to be honest, throughout the match, so I knew that if I could put him under pressure I would have very good chances, and obviously the way it went was a dream, since everything just worked out very well and I didn’t really have to squeeze it out. I just could go for the jugular at an early point and that was it.

16…f6 was Black’s best chance, but Fabiano spent just 28 seconds rejecting it:

I didn’t realise how critical the position was. It became clear after his next move that my position was really bad. Of course after e6 I should have taken some time. I was playing too quickly and I didn’t really believe in the other moves. I thought I should take it and then we’ll see, but it was probably an important moment. After f6 of course the position looks very unpleasant, but he doesn’t have a very obvious next move, and if I get c5 and c4 then maybe it’ll become unclear.

In the game we saw 16…fxe6? 17.Ng5! and suddenly Black was in deep trouble:

Magnus already began thinking of a “shush” celebration, though he was very conscious of how that had ended when he tried it mid-game against Caruana before:

That’s what I did last time and that just backfired so badly, but I did think after e6 dxe6 Ng5 unless I’m missing something huge I’m just winning, so at that point I did sort of prepare the celebration, which is never a good thing, but fortunately the position is so winning at that point that it’s really hard to mess up.

The miserable 17…Bc8 might have been Fabi’s best option, while after 17…Rf6 18.Qc2 Rg6 19.Rxe6! it really was just a matter of time.

After a few last checks Fabiano finally threw in the towel on move 31:

It was time for the celebration, for which Magnus no doubt took some inspiration from Anish Giri:

Anish was on hand to admire the work:

Magnus admitted it would have been braver to do the same during the game:

I tried it once before, as you all very much know, and it didn’t work out, and I’ve been advocating doing the shush when you’ve got a good chance to win, because I feel like when you’ve done it after you’ve won you don’t actually risk being humiliated, and why would you try to do this when you don’t? There should be some skin in the game! But this time I felt like it was an appropriate moment to do it, but I will promise next time I will do it when I have something to lose. I feel like at the very least I’ve given my opponents more ammunition, and I’m sure I’ll see a lot of shushing when I lose games, not only by Anish Giri!

There was certainly no lack of respect for his opponent:

Fabi’s made incredible strides in rapid and blitz chess. He’s playing in the next Magnus Tour tournament [the Chessable Masters that starts on Saturday] and I think he’s very much a force to be reckoned with. As I said earlier today, judging by the way we played he was as deserving a winner as I was and he deserves credit for a very good match.

Fabiano himself was asked if this performance would silence the people who still feel he’s not a top speed chess player (Anish Giri, for instance, said during the Mr Dodgy Invitational that he still didn’t believe in Fabiano’s speed chess skills):

I think the haters will think what they will regardless of results and it doesn’t really bother me. I have confidence in my own ability so I don’t really care what other people think.

Magnus, meanwhile, was asked by Maurice if winning clutch games is what makes a champion:

I don’t agree with it entirely, but I also don’t disagree. I think champions should show both. They should show dominance over time and also dominance in the critical moment. Obviously this particular format means that performing at the critical moments outshines everything else. It raises the stakes a lot, and certainly makes it very exciting, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s a hallmark of a champion to perform at the critical moments, because it can be a little bit random. 

Now that I’ve won the tournament I should just say that that’s what it is, right? (smiles) But honestly, I think it’s a very interesting idea and I’ve enjoyed it immensely, but you cannot really draw a conclusion in a way of what makes a champion and so on.

What’s certain is that it was a dream final and the perfect end to an exciting event. As we mentioned, next up is the Chessable Masters with Magnus, Fabi and in fact 8 of the world’s Top 10 players. The action starts at 16:00 CEST on Saturday 20th June!

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